Forecasting Flu Outbreaks on a City-By-City Basis

Researchers looking into New York City's flu rates think they may be able to predict local pandemics seven weeks before they happen.

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Here's your local weather report: Today will feature scattered showers, afternoon snow flurries and a 35 percent chance of contracting a horrible hacking cough that will lay you out for days.

It's possible you might hear such a prognostication from your local TV meteorologist in the not-too-distant future, thanks to evolving research by scientists at Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The researchers have taken the tools of weather prediction and twisted them around to aid in forecasting influenza outbreaks, which kill about 35,000 people in the U.S. annually. In years to come, they believe this tactic could be helpful in determining what American cities are in for a particularly ferocious flu season.

Determining when and where the flu will erupt hardest is a difficult task, given the country's diverse geography and a flu-outbreak window that can span six months. But Columbia's Jeffrey Shaman and NCAR's Alicia Karspect think they've found a way, using old flu data from New York City, according to AtmosNews.

They began with an earlier finding that epidemics typically begin after a spell of very dry weather. Then they went back through the weather records for New York from the winters of 2003 to 2009, correlating the meteorological conditions with prevailing estimates of sickness logged by Google Flu Trends. This Weather Channel-esque approach yielded quite promising results: The researchers discovered they could've retroactively predicted New York's outbreaks more than seven weeks before they peaked.

This hyper-local illness model possibly could be applied to other cities, giving urban populations a better idea of whether to get vaccines or avoid sniffly bus passengers and smudged doorknobs. On a larger scale, it could help municipalities decide how much vaccine to store up and whether or not to close public schools. However, the idea of forecasting individual cities still needs to be tested, says Shaman: "There is no guarantee that just because the method works in New York, it will work in Miami."

For a more in-depth look at this new technology, head on over to the supporting information for the study, "Forecasting seasonal outbreaks of influenza." Unless you're using a public computer, in which case you should just go to the nearest Walgreens right now to buy Tamiflu. (Kidding! Maybe.)

Top photo courtesy of Siamionau Pavel on Shutterstock.

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